Willard "Bill" Hershberger holds the distinction of being the only major league player to date to commit suicide during the season. Baseball Almanac likes to take a look "beyond the stats" and we hope you enjoy the following biographical information:
Willard Hershberger's Early Life
Willard Hershberger was born in Lemon Cove, California. Willard's family moved to Fullerton, California when his father, Claude, got a job working in the city's oil fields. He attended Fullerton Union High School, where he was a star athlete. The yearbook labeled Hershberger "the boy with the golden toe", referring to his achievements as a placekicker on the high school's football team, and "the greatest little catcher to ever put on the Fullerton uniform." The 1926 baseball team, on which Hershberger played, won the California Interscholastic Federation championship. In 2003, he was named to the school's All-Time FUHS baseball team.
On November 21, 1928, Claude Hershberger, who was depressed over financial problems, fatally shot himself with a shotgun in the family home's bathroom. 18-year-old Willard discovered the body.
Willard Hershberger's Professional Baseball Career
Willard Hershberger signed with the New York Yankees, but did not make his major league debut until age 27, after eight minor league seasons. He was a member of the Yankees' Newark Bears farm team which posted an outstanding 109-43 record in 1937. On December 3, 1937, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Eddie Miller and $40,000.
During his three-year tenure with the Reds, Willard Hershberger was a backup to regular catcher Ernie Lombardi. Hershberger, smaller and more athletic than the lumbering Lombardi, lacked power (he hit no home runs in his major league career), but was a good hitter for average, hitting .276 in 49 games in his rookie season .345 in 63 games in his second season. He was a part of the Reds' 1939 World Series team, their first appearance in the "Fall Classic" since the controversial 1919 World Series. However, the Reds were swept by Hershberger's former team, the Yankees. Hershberger had one basehit in two at-bats. In 1940, he played in 48 games and hit .309.
Willard Hershberger's Suicide
In July, Ernie Lombardi suffered an injured finger. Willard Hershberger filled in for him well. However, in a game against a poor New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on July 31, the Reds blew a 4-1 late-game lead and lost the game 5-4. Three days later, the Reds lost both games of a double-header to the Boston Bees 10-3 and 4-3, respectively.
The sensitive Willard Hershberger, who caught the Giants game and the second game versus the Bees, perceived that some of his teammates might have felt or implied that they might not have lost to such poor teams had Lombardi been playing. The Giants and the Bees would ultimately finish in sixth and last place, respectively.
At one point during the Bees game, an upset Willard Hershberger alluded to his father's suicide and said he would do likewise. Concerned, Reds manager Bill McKechnie spoke to his catcher in private. Hershberger tearfully opened up and took personal blame for the two loses. However, after about an hour, he had calmed down considerably and McKechnie believed he would be fine. The following morning, Reds publicist and traveling secretary Gabe Paul called Hershberger's room at the Copley Plaza Hotel and relayed a message from Bill McKechnie that he wasn't going to play that afternoon and needn't even put on his uniform; McKechnie likely wanted to give Hershberger time away from the ballpark to collect himself emotionally. However, he said he would be there. But when he failed to appear for pre-game activities, Gabe Paul became concerned and went to the hotel. The manager unlocked the door to Hershberger's room and admitted him.
Gabe Paul saw Willard Hershberger lying dead in a blood-filled bathtub. He had slashed his throat.
After giving his team the tragic news, Bill McKechnie exhorted the Reds to dedicate themselves to winning the World Series "for Hershie". McKechnie never publicly revealed what Willard Hershberger said to him during their meeting. "It had nothing to do with anybody on the team", he told reporters. "He told it to me in confidence, and I will not utter it to anyone".
The Cincinnati Reds would go on to defeat the American League champion Detroit Tigers in seven games to win the World Series. Reds players decided to share a portion of their championship money, totaling $5,803, to Hershberger's grieving mother, Maude. Willard Hershberger was interred at Visalia Public cemetery, in Visalia, California.
Willard Hershberger's Number 5
The Cincinnati Reds temporarily retired Willard Hershberger's uniform number 5. However, it was reactivated in 1942. In 1967, it was assigned to another catcher: Johnny Bench. Bench would become a star and a key player of the Cincinnati Reds' 1975 and 1976 World Series championship teams and be widely regarded as the greatest catcher in Major League Baseball history. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1989.
Did you know that Hershie was actually not the first baseball player in history to commit suicide, but rather the thirty-fourth (click the link to see every baseball suicide in history - prior and after Hershberger)?
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